One of the underrated benefits of the Army-Navy Game is that the media uses it each year to reacquaint themselves with both programs. A lot of the stories in the week leading up to the game are reflections on each team’s season up to that point. If you need a snapshot of the big-picture issues facing either program in any given year, try narrowing your Google search to the first week of December. It’s like digging up a time capsule.
That’s how I came across this 1998 article about Army’s move to Conference-USA. I found it fascinating for reasons that others might find it a bit unnerving. Nearly 17 years later, we’ve come full circle. Switch “Army” and “Navy,” and these quotes could easily have been said today:
“We’ve been on TV seven times this season,” said Army coach Bob Sutton, in town last week to preview Saturday’s Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (noon kickoff), the 99th meeting. “That’s more than we’ve ever been. We’ve already felt the impact in recruiting. [The conference] is close to a lot of our major recruiting areas, from Virginia to southern Florida across to Texas.”
According to Lengyel, Navy has no problems scheduling quality football opponents. Next year, the Midshipmen’s first five opponents are Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rice, West Virginia and Air Force. (Navy has home-and-home games with Temple to open the 2000 and 2001 seasons).
TV, scheduling, and recruiting benefits for the team joining a conference? No scheduling problems for the team that isn’t? These are essentially the same pros & cons offered today by the other party. It’s sort of funny, but given Army’s eventual fate in Conference-USA, is it also foreboding?
I don’t think so.
Army’s reasons for joining Conference-USA were far different from Navy’s decision to join the American. Army felt that they were striking while the iron was hot, capitalizing on their top-25, 10-2 season in 1996. To them, the time was right to make a step up in competition; joining C-USA was the logical move to take their program to that ever-elusive “next level.”
Navy’s motives are different. I wouldn’t call Navy reluctant to join the American; to the contrary, they’ve been vocal advocates for the conference and leaders in shaping it. However, it’s a move being made out of perceived necessity, not ambition. It’s a different world in 2015, and Navy leadership feels that the days of viable independence are numbered. As scheduling, bowl game access, and television coverage are being consolidated among the conferences, Navy is joining the American in an effort to preserve their standing in the broader college football world.
To that end, the success of Navy’s decision can’t be measured solely in terms of wins and losses. Time will tell whether the decision to join the American Athletic Conference was the right one, but even now there are positive signs. Think about it; for the last 4 months, one of the main storylines about the Navy program has been how the College Football Playoff committee should handle a potential Navy berth in the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowls. If the goal of joining the American was to preserve Navy’s relevance, the fact that this conversation is even taking place is a pretty decent indicator that the goal is being achieved.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Winning matters, and for most people it probably will be the only measuring stick they use to judge Navy’s decision to join a conference. With the similarities between Army’s 1998 optimism and that of Navy today, it’s only natural to fear that the same optimism will be met with the same results. Fortunately for Navy, though, the similarities end there.
Army wasn’t without success in the decade leading up to their C-USA debut, putting up 5 winning seasons in that span. There were two problems, though. The first was with who those winning records came against. Army went 9-3 in 1988 and 6-5 in 1989, but in each of those seasons they played four I-AA teams. They averaged playing three I-AA teams every year, mostly against the likes of Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, etc. The rest of their schedules weren’t exactly filled with a who’s who of college football at the time, either. That leads us to the second problem. If Army had 5 winning seasons in those 10 years, that means they had 5 seasons against those light schedules that weren’t winning seasons. When the Cadets won 10 games in 1996, West Point leadership didn’t recognize it for what it was: an outlier for a .500 program straddling the line between I-A and I-AA. Army was in no position to make a move into C-USA, and made matters worse by replacing Bob Sutton with Todd Berry.
In contrast, a look at the 10 years prior to their joining the American Athletic Conference tells you that the Navy program is in a far better position. The Mids have been a consistent 8-9 game winner over the last decade, and the schedules that Navy has faced were of a different caliber than the ones faced by those Army teams. Army won 27 games against I-AA opponents, while Navy has won 17 against BCS/Power 5 opponents. Army had only played 3 of its future conference-mates a total of 5 times in the 10 years prior to joining C-USA. Navy, on the other hand, makes regular appearances on many American schedules. Of Navy’s 8 conference opponents in 2015, 5 have played at least part of a multi-game series with the Mids since 2005 (a sixth, Houston, was scheduled to play Navy before a conflict forced them to cancel). While Army was stepping up to play in C-USA, Navy is joining a conference of familiar peers, and doing so with the program’s all-time winningest coach at the helm. There’s no guarantee that Navy will win, but there’s no doubt that they belong.
Comparisons between Army and Navy are common, which is understandable given the unique nature of service academies. That doesn’t mean those comparisons always appropriate, though. Each program’s decision to join a conference was the product of different times and different teams. Because of that, we have every reason to expect a different outcome.